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Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx

Updated on June 12, 2015
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Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx - a Review and Companion

In Accordion Crimes Annie Proulx describes the experience of individuals and groups of immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and 20th century through several stories linked together by the journey of a small, green accordion.

We see how the dreams and hopes of the people who flocked from around the world to this land of opportunity are transformed by the sheer struggle to survive amidst the racism in America.

Proulx explores the issues of background, culture, music, language, and name as the immigrants struggle to either retain or shed their origins. The heartache of racial prejudice as the white Americans pour scorn on all immigrants, and each ethnic group derides the others.

For some the journey brought nothing but misery while others flourished. Proulx, using language that's rich, precise and terse, tells each tale so vividly you can feel the heat, smell the sweat, see the land through the eyes of outsiders.

Fact or Fiction?

This book is so packed with historical places, characters and events that are intertwined with the fictional and imaginary; join me in an exploration of some of the background in an attempt to augment the pictures painted in words and bring to you what Proulx cannot do, the sound of the accordion music and the faces of the musicians that played it.

My Own Immigrant Roots

Reading this book made me look again at my own racial roots. How many of us can say we are 'of pure blood'? Are we not all, (or at least most of us), immigrants or emigrants?

Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx was first published in Great Britain in 1996 by Fourth Estate Limited, ISBN 1-85702-575-X

Accordion Crimes - Read the book and decide for yourself

Accordion Crimes
Accordion Crimes

If you want a good story, to learn a whole lot about America and American history and you want a good read this book is for you. Captivating and thought provoking.

 
Annie-Proulx
Annie-Proulx | Source

Who is E. Annie Proulx?

The Story of Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on the 22nd of August 1935 and was christened Edna Ann Proulx, , Her own racial background, along with most Americans, was mixed as her father was of Native American/French-Canadian origins and her ancestors on her mother's side were immigrants from England who arrived in America in 1635.

She studied at the University of Vermont, became a professional writer and founded a newspaper in Vermont called 'Behind the Times'.

Writing and Prizes

  • Postcards (1992) received the PEN/Faulkner Award
  • The Shipping News (1993) won the Pulitzer Prize
  • Accordion Crimes (1996)
  • The Mud Below," short story1999 It won the O. Henry Prize
  • Her short story "Brokeback Mountain" appeared in the collection Close Range (1999) and was made into a movie (2005) It won the O. Henry Prize
  • That Old Ace in the Hole (2002)
  • Heart Songs (1988) story collections
  • Bad Dirt (2004) story collections
  • Bird Cloud (2011)

Proulx lived for more than thirty years in Vermont, then in 1994 she moved to Saratoga, Wyoming where she lives now, but she also spends time in northern Newfoundland and has sisters who live in Louisana and Florida.

The sruggle to realise Accordion Crimes

This book might never have been published! In the acknowledgements to Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx discloses that it was writtten 'during two years of disruption' to her personal life. Her mother and several other family members died, she moved from Vermont to Wyoming, broke her wrist and suffered a publisher takeover.

The author said that this book might never have been finished without help from her friends. Thank goodness for them. What a loss it would have been if this book had been submerged by personal disasters.

The Shipping News

I've only just been introduced to the work of Annie Proulx via The Shipping News which is the wonderful story of the unattractive and hapless Quoyle as he attempts to make a home for himself and family in Newfoundland. This book had me heading straight to Google Maps to find out more about Newfoundland and see if there was any possibility of my getting there - in summer.

Why didn't I find her work sooner?

Annie Proulx Reading - Her text on torture has uncomfortable links with Accordion Crimes

Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be 'white' ...

America, Liberty and Freedom - A gift from France

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty | Source

The Statue of Liberty was designed by Frdric Bartholdi and the interior iron structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. It was a gift to the United States from the people of France as a monument to American independence. The statue has become an icon of freedom and of the United States.

Image: The Statue of Liberty courtesy of Laverrue, http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-3010067161

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Accordion Crimes and Racial Prejudice in America

This is a quotation from 'Race Matters'

The book begins with an epigaph by Cornel West from Race Matters (see above), and it continues to point out that there would only be, "Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh and others engaged in class, ethnic and gender struggles over resources and identity."

Annie Proulx investigates the meaning of identity, race, ethnic and family groups by following an accordion from its birth in Sicily to America and beyond. She explores how some fought to retain their roots through language, music, names and history, while others shrugged off the past to attain a new identity as an American. They changed their names, spurned traditional music and failed to pass on their native tongues to their children.

This book is really a collection of stories, but Proulx skillfully stitches them together by following the accordion as it changes hands and also by many other subtle links as the paths of the characters, separated by space and time, come together in little coincidences scattered like seeds throughout the book.

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The Accordion Maker From Sicily

Belle Italia

The first chapter, titled The Accordion Maker, Proulx describes in loving detail how a Sicilian, (we never know his name), makes an accordion with tender loving care, his masterpiece, his ticket to his new life in 'La Merica'.

"It seemed Sicily was pouring out as cornmeal from a ripped sack."

He heads off with his son, Silvano, for a new life in this promised land of freedom and liberty, only to be caught up in the real linchings of eleven Italians in New Orleans in 1891. A musician and maker of fine instruments, he dreams of opening a music shop, but, along with the other musicians, works hauling fruit in the docks.

As you read the book you'll become aware that many of the characters seem to come to a grisley and bizarre end.

1891 Lynching of Italians in New Orleans - Police Chief David Hennessy was murdered

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Image: An episode of the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans after the murder of police chief David Hennessy. Citizens break down the parish prison doors. This is in the public domain because the copyright has expired. Source: Andrews, E. Benjamin. History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1912 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you wish success you must master the American language

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The Germans in America

To integrate or not to integrate. What's in a name?

Three German men arrive in 1893 in an abandoned town on the banks of Little Runt River near Keokuk and unintentionally name the new town Prank. They build up farms, and families, are joined by others until by 1900 there are 30 farms around Prank.

The older members of the family cling to the old ways for a long time, but the next generation chooses America. Karl Messermacher becomes Charlie Sharp, and in the end the rest of his family follow his example.

"Charlie Sharp found life easier than had Karl Messermacher."

But none of the Germans found it easy when the first world war brought all the petty predjudices and jealousies to a head and school friends turned lynching mob overnight.

Fortunes are made and lost and made again and deaths more gruesom than ever dog the characters as they march through the history of America.

He Who Does Not Love Wine, Wife, and Song Will Be a Fool His Whole Lifelong - German-American immigrants assert their values

accordion-crimes-German-immigrants
accordion-crimes-German-immigrants | Source

Image: This is an assertion of the cultural values of German-American immigrants in the face of alcohol prohibition.

This is in the public domain because the copyright has expired. Source: A print published by Kimmel and Voigt in New York, 1873 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image, copyright expired - publication date before 1st January 1923

They Didn't Want to Hear the Old German Accordion Music - Yes Sir, that's my baby ..

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The Mexicans in America

It's now 1946 and Abelardo Relampago Salazar is living in Hornet, Texas. The Relampago family "had been American citizens since 1848 and still the anglo Texans said 'Mexicans'."

There, in Texas the accordion is not considered to be 'American', but is linked to the 'Polacks'.

Aberlardo and his sons play in bands at night, his daughter runs away and marries an Italian, and her father is bitten by a spider and we are reminded of the spiders The Accordion Maker killed when he unloaded fruit on the docks. The green accordion is left in a Taxi.

accordion-crimes
accordion-crimes | Source

The French in America

Briefly we move to Paris and meet Charles Gagnon who immediately emmigrates to Quebec in 1931 and started a family in the east end slums of Montreal. His hero as Jo Privat, "who could play what he liked."

The family then move to Random in Maine to live with his wife's brother; a brother who looks suspiciously dark - like an Indian.

The French family look down on 'The Dirty Irish'. Charles Gagnon's wife "was repulsed by the Irish family ....... in a hut built of Triton Motor Oil cans."

The son, Dolor, (doleur is French for pain), abandoned to an orphanage and renamed Frank, picks up the thread of the story, seeks out the French music that lies in his blood and refuses to change name.

French Market New Orleans 1891 - Painting by artist William Woodward (1859-1939). Date 1891

French-Market-New-Orleans
French-Market-New-Orleans | Source

Image: Public Domain Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Cajun, Oil and Rayon - The French in Lousisiana

Time is told in rayon and oil rigs; premonitions of drilling off the shores of Scotland.

Zydeco emerged from the rich mix of peoples in southwest Louisiana in the early 19th century. It incorporated forms of "la la" Creole music and combines it with elements of an even older American tradition which began in the late 1700s: Cajun music's Irish Celtic and French fiddle tunes, German button accordion, Latin rhythms, and Appalachian styles. As if this wasn't enough the "new" American music blues and rhythm and blues and Haitian rhythms played a part as Haitian people moved to Louisiana to help harvest sugarcane.

This is a real musical education for me! I love this! This song, Ma 'tit fille and Zydeco both feature in Proulx's Accordion crimes. We move with the French down to Lousisiana where a vivid, hot and frightening picture of life is deftly created in one paragraph. The images are conjoured up in odd words and phrases - cock-fights, aligator hunt, horses fixed with charmes and potions, miscegenation (interracial marriage - I had to look that one up), ...... Saturday dog fights to the death.

Clifton Chenier

Octave, standing in for Clifton calls out to the audience, 'you remember it all come from what we go back to, LaLa, remember that old laLa, we all done that".

"Somebody yelled for Clifton's "Eh, 'tite fille ..;"

Polish Polkas - And Lawrence Welk

Lithuanians, Magyars, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Russians, Poles, Slovenes, Croatians, Herzegovinians, Bosnians, Dalmatians, Montenegrins, Serbians, Bulgarians, Moravians, Bohemians - The Americans called everybody a hunky.

In 1926 polka bands were in demand and Jozef Przybysz played in the Polka Dot Restaurant, Polish homes, the Polish Club and Polish weddings to cash in on the mid-century Polka dance craze. Walt Disney's Minnie Mouse, born in 1928, came dressed in a bright red polka dot skirt and bow.

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... every immigrant in America must have pawned an accordion here ...

Annie Proulx Describes with Lists

I love this list of accordions

In the pawn shop Joey looked at the shelves of melodeons, Cajun open-valved diatonics, chemnitzers, English and Anglo concertinas, a single-voice banoneaon, electric piano accordions, Yugoslavian melodijas, plastic accordions, a Chinese mudan, a Russian bayan, Pakistani harmoniums, Bastaris, Castigliones, Sopranis Hohner Black Dots, Colombo, Italotone, Sonda, Renelli, Duralumin, chromatics, Bassetti..... so many accordions

Who Was Jo Privat?

Jo Privat was a French accordionist

Jo Privat is one of the tiny links that tie the characters from different ethnic 'stories' together.

Born 15 April 1919, Jo Privat was a French accordionist and composer. He was born and brought up in Mnilmontant, Paris and played at Balajo 3, a musette club in Paris where he worked with Django Reinhardt, the Ferret Brothers, Didier Roussin and Patrick Saussois.

He wrote about five hundred works, influenced by traditions as disparate as the Scottish bagpipes, Gypsy culture and American jazz.

Privat died on 3 April 1996.

Watch and Listen to Jo Privat

Listen to Accordion Crimes on CD - This is the unabridged version

For anyone who is too busy to settle down with a book, or finds it hard to read for any reason, why not listen to Accordion Crimes on CD?

Or Read it on Kindle - Kindle is just so convenient!

Read it on the train, in bed, take it on holiday - you can just slip it into your handbag or pocket and have hundreds of books just a flick of the finger away.

"It's simple - the country's filled up, there's not enough room, not enough jobs to go around."

The Irish, Basques, Swedes, Norwegians, Fins .....

So many flocked to America!

The accordion in the cold north with painted horses, logging, and then, back to it's first American home, and the heat and preachers and rattlesnakes of the deep south. Proulx whips up the most vivid and unforgettable images with few words.

"A good little B/C two-row .... that's your man for the good Irish tunes. ..." I hope you've enjoyed seeing these images and videos and listening to the music, but these are mearly footnotes to the novel. Nothing will beat reading the book.

I'll leave you with the Irish tune The Coulin ....

The Coulin - Old Irish tunes remembered

Fancy Playing The Accordion Yourself? - You can buy some lovely instruments on Amazon!

Hohner Bravo Piano Accordion, 120 Bass, Black
Hohner Bravo Piano Accordion, 120 Bass, Black

I love this black Hohner Pianl Accordion

 

What Did You Think of Accordion Crimes? - Love it or hate it?

What did you think?

Rate it, if you dare...

On a scale of 1-7, what did you REALLY think?

See results

The best line ever:

... Italians, Germans, Poles, on every train ... looking for the golden America they had imagined, a place they believed existed somewhere.

The Immigrant and Emigrant - Is immigration and emigration always a struggle?

Is the life of the immigrant, (whether by choice or force), always a struggle?

Postscript of utmost importance

If you buy any of the books recommended above, this page automatically makes a donation to the incredible nonprofit, Donors Choose, which helps provide classrooms and students in need with resources that our public schools often lack.

Following in The Footsteps of The Green Accordion

show route and directions
A markerNew Orleans -
New Orleans
get directions

B markerKeokuk -
Keokuk
get directions

C markerQuebec -
Quebec
get directions

D markerMaine -
Maine
get directions

E markerMontana -
Montana
get directions

I'm an Immigrant

... and an emigrant

Whilst reading this book I became aware of my own situation, and the change that a person undergoes from emigrant to immigrant.

The emigrant is full of hope, enterprise, courage and a willingness to work hard.

The immigrant is lazy, a threat, a scoundrel, a thief and a good-for-nothing. When exactly did the metamorphosis take place?

I've left England to immigrate to France. I'm an immigrant. I didn't expect that I'd be welcomed open-armed by the French. I've grown up with waves of immigration into Britain and seen that the immigrant cannot win. I'm to young to remember the signs in English boarding houses "No blacks no Irish no dogs," but I saw them in films. "A Taste of Honey" was one of the first films that I can remember about racist Britain. In Britain the immigrants are either lazy spongers here to clain 'our' benefits, or aggressive userpers of 'our' jobs and work, if not 'our' women. (Note that women are commodities and not people!).

However the people in Limousin have been kind and the aging population have put up with the influx of foreigners: British, Dutch, German and Americans with good grace. It helps that the rural population is declining and the English bought empty houses and filled schools that would otherwise have closed. I'm sure we are responsible for the doubling of the size of the airport, the supermarkets and the DIY stores. There are many advantages in taking people into your community.

My Immigrant background

Not only am I an immigrant/emigrant, but my family, at least on my father's side are also immigrants and emigrants. My great grandfather and great uncles were Meehan's from Ireland. One uncle played an important role in the construction of the sewer systems in England, and the other was awarded a medal for setting up a Union for mental health workers. I'm proud of my Irish forefathers.

All the family on my fathers side, save my father's parents, immigrated to Australia. (I wonder if anyone out there will ever get in touch with me?) My Uncle left for South Africa when I was young and I have cousins there and in New Zealand. The tide of people looking for the promised land continues to ebb and to flow as each seeks their own Shangri La. And who can blame them?

Are You an Immigrant? - And where are your ancestors from?

How pure is your blood?

See results

Brokeback Mountain The Opera - Annie Proulx writes the Libretto

Wall, I can hardly imagine this tale of lovelorn cowboys as an opera but I expect I'm absolutely wrong! Annie. Proulx has been hard at work writing the libretto for Charles Wuorinen's new opera of Brokeback Mountain.

The premiere of the opera will be on January 28 2013 at the Teatro Real in Madrid.

Read more here: Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN Opera - All the Details!

Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback Mountain

A bizarre but toughing story of sexual love between two cowboys. This short story has captured the imagination and has been made into a stunning film. Take a look for yourself.

 

Do leave me a message - I'd love to hear from you

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    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 5 years ago

      Never heard of this book but am interested to read it now. Nice review.

    • BLouw profile image
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      Barbara Walton 5 years ago from France

      @Scarlettohairy: I loved The Shipping News too, but haven't read That Old Ace in the Hole. I do remember seeing a film 'The Ace in the Hole'. I wonder if it's the same one? Thanks for leaving these messages, scarlettohairy.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I have read most of Annie Proulx's books and enjoyed them all. I think my favorite is That Old Ace in the Hole but love this one and The Shipping News and...